When new technology is first demonstrated, there 's always a big gap between the hype and the reality. And when it comes to artificial intelligence the gap has become a chasm. It feels like we've been talking about AI for decades.
In fact, the Spielberg film Artificial Intelligence was released in 2001, so it's been a familiar term in popular culture at least since then. It has been an ever-present in science fiction, of course, for decades.
But popular culture has a lot to answer for. Whenever AI is talked about these days, it often comes alongside an alarmist narrative on job losses and eventual world domination by robots. For example, a recent article in the Financial Times, suggested that we would soon reach the point of ‘technological singularity' when computers can easily outsmart humans.
Yet in reality, many businesses are left wondering what AI means for them - especially if it leads to a company run by robots.
Still coping with wave after wave of technological disruption over the past few years, these companies typically won't have the bandwidth, the budget or even the inclination to even consider how they could make AI work for them.
This is one instance where the reality does appear healthier than the vision. The FT article did comment: "Hype, of course, is not an alien phenomenon in the tech industry. At present, we are a very, very long way from technological singularity and opinion is divided about whether we will ever reach it."
Talking of which, although Gartner forecasts that machine (or artificial) intelligence will be "the most disruptive class of technologies over the next 10 years".
However, its latest "hype cycle" has several AI-related technologies, such as "machine learning" and "natural language question answering" heading for the "trough of disillusionment".
That doesn't necessarily mean these technologies are on their way out, only that they will need to be refined and made more practical and commercial to reach Gartner's "plateau of productivity" and a more sustainable market acceptance.
So how can AI and all its related technologies help today's businesses in a more practical way? Because of the costs and the expertise involved, most businesses will only be able to take advantage if AI capabilities are baked into an enterprise system they already use - or might choose to use for multiple reasons including, but not exclusively because of, AI.
This doesn't necessarily mean a "one size fits all" approach - these systems are invariably customised for each individual business in any case. But intelligence will increasingly be embedded within the context of the business, automatically discovering relevant insights, predicting future behaviour and proactively recommending next best actions.
It will learn, self-tune and become smarter with every interaction and additional piece of data. Yet it will still act as an extension of, not a replacement for, human insight and understanding.
This is already the approach cloud CRM company Salesforce.com is taking with its AI technology, Einstein - so-called because "the definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple", according to the great scientist himself.
This is designed to bring the benefits of AI to sales and CRM embracing, for example, the huge challenge of social media data analysis, monitoring and assessing to recognise trends, sentiment and relevant events
On the manufacturing side, it can be used in conjunction with the Internet of Things, quickly pinpointing, for example, not just that devices are failing, but in what area this is happening and what might be the cause.
When AI is integrated into the fabric of the business in this way it becomes a powerful and valuable tool. It will be up to a good systems integrator or vendor partner to help businesses explore the possibilities and tailor the solution accordingly.
But first it's important to convince the market that the technology is not a threat to society as we know it - but, in fact, a valuable tool for any business.
Sean Harrison-Smith is managing director of Ceterna
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